We have gathered stories and advice from UW undergrads involved in research to answer common questions undergraduates have about research.
Many students who answered these questions are Undergraduate Research Leaders (URLs) with the Office of Undergraduate Research. Click here to learn about the URL program.
No! Most people don’t have any experience with research before college, so it is more than okay to reach out before you have any formal research experience. I would encourage everyone interested in research to look into professors or researchers who conduct research on topics that you are interested in and email them to ask if they have any space in their lab! – Megana Shivakumar
View Megana’s URL profile here.
You definitely do not need prior experience to start researching as an undergrad! Most professors/UW programs supporting undergrad research are more than happy to support students through their first research experience. If you have found a topic or program that interests you, your interest is enough to make you a valuable member of the research process. Also, each research project/lab/program is completely different and will be a new starting point for each person involved even if they already have research experience. – Ruby Barone
Everyone has a different path to research! I started in high school through a Biomedical Sciences class and continued research at the UW through a summer program before freshman year. With this being said, you do not have to start research this early on. Some students begin research after the fall or winter quarter of Freshman year while others wait until Sophomore year. Personally, I took a break from research my sophomore year and just participated in summer research through an internship. Currently, I am starting in a different lab, so don’t worry about starting later into your undergraduate year as a junior. However, I would suggest reaching out sooner rather than later, so you do not wait until your senior year because you may not have enough time to learn whether you enjoy research or not. – Nisha BK
View Nisha’s URL profile here.
Yes! I would definitely encourage students to look into getting involved with research before they’re in their major so that you can learn more about the specific topics within your major that interest you. In addition, many PIs like to work with students earlier in their college career so that you can spend more time working in their lab and specializing in your skill set. It’s never too early to start! – Megana Shivakumar
View Megana’s URL profile here.
You absolutely can! I conduct research in a Microbiology lab as a Biochemistry major. My research provides me with insight into the unique workings of biochemical assays specifically used with bacteria. For example, I research DNA replication proteins and am working to determine the biochemical mechanism of action for protein-protein interactions that are unique to bacteria using both in-vivo and in-vitro assays. Additionally, many fields are interdisciplinary in their research: in my lab, I get to work with aspects of Microbiology, Virology, Molecular Biology, and Biochemistry. Having a different major from your research topic can make you a unique asset to a research group, as you may be better equipped to answer questions in ways that come from your major compared to the field of the research you participate in. If you’re passionate about the topic, I would encourage you to pursue the research opportunity! – Tara Young
View Tara’s URL profile here.
A good place to start when seeking research opportunities is the research database. However, I found my opportunity by cold emailing a professor whose lab website I found by Googling “regenerative medicine research, UW Seattle.” Googling a topic you are interested in followed by “UW Seattle,” and then emailing the professor to inquire about an opportunity is a lucrative way, in my opinion, to discover opportunities that are not overtly advertised.
Regarding reaching out to professors for research opportunities: Here is a link to an email template that you can follow when inquiring about a research opportunity. Generally, it is important to introduce yourself, briefly explain why you are interested in the professor’s research (it further helps to reference a few things you learned from skimming some of their papers if it is a STEM lab!), and state your goals/how research with the group you identified would help you reach these goals. – Carson Butcher
View Carson’s URL profile here.
If you have not worked with or met the mentor in the past, I would recommend reaching out via email first, introducing yourself, and providing the mentor with full details of your interest in working with them. Also, send over your resume/CV so they have all the essential information. At the end of the email, I would suggest a time that the mentor and I could meet in person together soon so that we can formally meet and further discuss the potential of working together.
If the mentor is a professor that you are currently taking a class with or someone you already are acquainted with, then it might make more sense to approach them in person first, but definitely always send an email so they have all of the information in a permanent place and not just in their head. Mentors are usually pretty busy people, so I would want to ensure that they remember who I am and what I am proposing. – Ruby Barone
Apply! Apply! Apply! I would start by familiarizing yourself with the resources offered by the University of Washington. This is a great place to start. Use our resources for finding opportunities that you are not only interested in but also discover opportunities that are new, or you never knew existed. However, don’t stop there, there are many institutions, organizations, and programs outside of campus as well. The process may seem daunting at first, but it will allow you to learn how to network and gain experience with interviews and applications. This is the first step forward in getting yourself involved in clinical research. – Anonymous
Don’t immediately start off by dissecting the abstract, and do not, absolutely do not, get overwhelmed by all the text! The meat of most research papers is in the figures, so definitely spend time dissecting those, and give the actual text more of a brief scan-through than an intense read. The methods and discussion sections are also super helpful to look through, and don’t be afraid to google things you don’t know along the way and annotate the paper. Additionally, looking through the reference papers listed at the very end of the pdf of the paper is always helpful because those papers tend to provide foundational information that will be used across papers within the same field. Be sure to give yourself enough time to read a paper, and if you’re in a lab, make note of any questions and ask grad students/ post-docs in the lab! It’s also a great way to introduce yourself to your lab and show initiative for your own learning. – Srinidhi Naidu
View Srinidhi’s URL profile here.
- View the UW Libraries Undergraduate Research Tutorial module: Strategic Reading
This is one big misconception that I have come across at UW – that research is only STEM-related. This is wrong!! UW has tons of great opportunities for research in the humanities – for example, the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities is a summer program that supports students through an arts/humanities-centered research project based around a common theme (selected students also receive a financial award and course credit!). The Mary Gates Endowment awards research scholarships to students from all disciplines, and many UW professors in the arts/humanities are also happy to have students reach out to them with research interests that can be pursued on a more one-on-one level with a mentor or instructor. – Ruby Barone
Research in the arts/humanities is a lot less structured than how lab-based research and experiments might flow – students can create a research style and project that is tailored to their individual topic and interests, which allows projects to take form as research essays, art forms, performances, video essays, and the list goes on. For research programs like the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities, and for more individualized research that one might work with a faculty member on, you are highly encouraged to bring your own interests and passions to the table. Your mentor(s) will likely provide a basic framework for the final project you are aiming to produce, but they also allow a lot of room for creativity and your own interpretation of your research to take place. For example, my last big research project took form as both a formal research project and an art piece, which ended up being displayed in UW libraries and the UW office of research. Research in the arts/humanities is very fluid, and your project’s form will likely evolve as you learn more about your topic. – Ruby Barone
If you began a research project in high school, it is absolutely up to you and your research mentor whether you want to continue it into your undergraduate career. If you feel passionate and excited about your research, don’t feel obligated to switch topics as you enter undergraduate research. However, I would say that the transition to college can be a great time to try new things and extend yourself as a researcher to learn new skills, techniques, and about new topics! You have a lot of years to experiment with new things. Anecdotally, the research I participated in during high school in seismology is completely different from the research I conduct now in microbiology, and I really value having had that experience in gaining skills in a more “dry lab” environment. Although I now work in a wet lab, there are many skills that can carry over, and it allows you to get a better sense of what excites you as a researcher. – Tara Young
View Tara’s URL profile here.
It depends. Most professors in STEM fields, from my understanding, expect approximately 9-12 hours per week. That said, you can fulfill these hours whenever it works best with your schedule. Moreover, all professors understand that you are a student first. If there are weeks where you have several exams, for example, or are particularly busy with schoolwork, communicate this to your research mentor! Odds are they will understand that you can’t work on your project as much as usual and it will be totally ok. – Carson Butcher
View Carson’s URL profile here.
For research in the STEM fields, mentors usually expect 10 hours per week of time commitment. However, it does not mean that you will and must do 10 hours of work every week. You would start easy with ~3 hours per week of training, getting yourself familiarized with the research methodology and protocols. As you gain familiarity and confidence in research methods, you can be more independent and conduct more experiments based on your interest, therefore spending more time in the lab. Mentors usually expect a long-term commitment of a minimum 1 year, and it is reasonable: most of the training, whether wet lab work or computational work, would require at least a quarter of training to gain confidence. You are left with two quarters (or more) of independent research to learn, grow and contribute. – Teng-Jui Lin
View Carson’s Teng-Jui’s profile here.
I recently transitioned to a new lab, and I do not have a specific project I am working on. I am mostly learning basic biomedical science lab bench work even though I have prior experience. My mentor encouraged me to start from the beginning as if I had no previous experience, so I can relearn the fundamentals. If you want to develop basic research skills, I would highly recommend applying because you will spend time learning techniques in the beginning and your mentor will be there to supervise you. – Nisha BK.
View Nisha’s URL profile here.
As a student who juggles a full course load and anywhere between 5-10 extracurriculars every quarter, I understand the struggle of maintaining a healthy work-life balance! Something that has always helped me is organizing my life into a calendar and being very intentional with how I spend my time. Especially when it comes to research, I set clear boundaries with my mentors about when I’ll be working. It also helps that I love everything that I do—I get to study neuroscience, do research, direct a mentorship program, and do a communications internship. It’s so rewarding when you get to do work that you are genuinely passionate about. But of course, we can’t be productive all the time. Make sure to prioritize your health and give yourself time to rest and recharge! – Shannon Hong
View Shannon’s URL profile here.
- View the UW Libraries Undergraduate Research Tutorial module: Finding Your Balance